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Exposing the surreal in the ordinary: art after the pandemic


Surrealism is a movement that has never quite left us. It seeps into the margins of our daily experiences and manages to unlock that uneasy, uncomfortable feeling that we thought we’d succeeded in pushing down into the depths of our stomachs. Once associated with furry teacups, melting clocks and lobster telephones, ‘surreal’ has become a term that we now apply to ordinary experiences that “just don’t sit right”. It is a term that perfectly describes the experience of living through a global pandemic. Nothing about locking ourselves up in our homes, leaving the house once a day and limiting our social circle to the nuclear family felt familiar. Yet this was our reality, our sur-reality. 

When asked about the pandemic, we rarely use just one word to describe it, in fact we rarely use words at all. A typical response to a question regarding the pandemic would be a groan, an eye roll or a change of conversation. We do not use standard methods of communication to express our sentiments about the pandemic, and neither do artists. Over the course of the past months, artists, exhibitioners and auctioneers have been releasing pieces that favour a more immersive, confrontational and surreal consumption of art. Their treatment of space is something to be remarked upon. Having been confined domestically, locally, and nationally, creative minds are ready to break down these borders and start redefining space to embrace both the public and the private. A dichotomy that the pandemic reinforced. 

Mike Nelson’s The Book of Spells is currently rated second on the ‘ten best art exhibitions to see in London’ by TimeOut. It consists of a single 3x3x3m room that represents two years of isolation and quarantine. A chained light hangs from the ceiling, a single bed lurks in the corner and the walls are covered with bookshelves loaded with travel guides. Nelson invites us into his artistic creation one by one, and the door is locked from behind. You become the protagonist of this strange, uncanny environment not dissimilar from the four walls you got to know all too well during quarantine. This surreal experience immerses the public audience into the private space in a way that few artists had attempted before the pandemic. Prior to Covid-19, people were practicing social distancing from art: at an exhibition, it was customary to stand at least 6 feet away from any piece, a distance that was maintained either by security sensors or by the wrathful gaze of a museum official. Now, it seems we do not think about the consumption of art in the same way. A new emphasis is placed on experience and immersion. Art has begun to exist around us instead of in front of us. Nelson locates us within his claustrophobic installation and on the boundary between restriction and imaginative freedom. He employs a surrealistic juxtaposition in placing travel guides, gesturing to the world beyond, within a confined space. The pandemic has required artists to rethink the way in which they, and we, interact with surroundings; and space is their primary instrument for such manipulation. 

This spatial creativity, however, is not limited to the creator, themselves. The way in which art is being exhibited has also undergone drastic changes following the pandemic. Not only are we seeing the emergence of online exhibitions that can be experienced at home, but there has also been a surge in virtual-reality exhibitions such as the well-known Van Gogh Immersive Experience. Unlike Nelson’s 3m² room, this exhibition brings 200 of Van Gogh’s masterpieces to life on a 1000m² surface. It is also not limited to a specific place, the exhibition has thrilled over 8.5 million visitors across 75 cities worldwide. Since the pandemic, the border between online and offline has collapsed, and exhibitioners have catered to this by creating a space that is simultaneously physical and virtual. 

Exhibitioners also appear to be interested in the relationship between private, public and creative space. Currently, the Whitechapel Gallery is presenting A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 which reflects upon the different functions of the studio. A studio is a space of creativity: it can be a place of privacy or a stage of performance. A studio can be a room, a floor, a desk, a kitchen, a train. Its boundaries are limitless. In this exhibition, there are reconstructions of artists’ studios alongside photos of artists at work. The Whitechapel director, Iwona Blazwick, changed the whole nature of the gallery, turning it into a multi-part museum. A single public space became a myriad of private spaces, representing the personal realm of the creator’s mind. Whilst an exhibition conventionally aims to show the created product, here we are seeing the creative production. There is a surreal feel to this exhibition that rethinks the home-working space, a notion familiar to all those lockdown home-workers. 

One studio that particularly struck me was Tracy Emin’s, which we see in photographic form: Naked Photos – Life Model Goes Mad (1996). Her studio, a place of self-discovery and reflection, became an exhibition. In these images we see Emin painting, naked, whilst performing to an audience in Stockholm who could observe her through peepholes cut out by the artist. These circular glimpses into Emin’s personal realm take on a particular significance today. They are reminiscent of the webcams at the top of our computer screens that allow colleagues and acquaintances to peer into our workspaces. The inclusion of Emin’s studio in the exhibition is very ‘meta’. In an exhibition about studios we see a studio that is an exhibition. Following the pandemic, the Whitechapel gallery has succeeded in reproducing the surreal sensation felt when the virtual realm succeeded in publicising the private space of study and creation. 

Covid-19 saw many lose their sense of taste and smell. Our favourite foods began to taste of nothing or completely different, like something we had never eaten before. It appears that the virus had a similar effect on our artistic consumption. In the art market recently, particular interest has been directed to Van Gogh’s Champs près des Alpilles (1889), a painting produced whilst Van Gogh was confined at the Saint-Paul asylum in Saint-Rémy. This landscape has remained in the private hands of Yves Saint Laurent followed by those of a private collector, and has never been exhibited publicly. Next month however, this piece is coming to auction and is expected to sell in May for a price of $45 million at Christie’s in New York. Works of this quality and from this period, despite being shown extensively in museums across the globe, are rarely available on the market. In questioning why work from the most harrowing period of Van Gogh’s life is beginning to attract the attention of art dealers, we can only think of the influence of the pandemic. Sentiments of confinement, claustrophobia and restriction are as familiar to Van Gogh as they are to us now. It is only after the pandemic that his work from the asylum can begin to resonate more intimately with the modern audience. 

In today’s world – increasingly complex, contradictory and multipolar – art is placing an emphasis on choice. Artists, exhibitioners and auctioneers are choosing how they present art and this process of choice seems to be dictated by surrealist tendencies. It appears that surrealism is enjoying a modern renaissance. Only last week, Magritte’s L’Empire des Lumières was sold for $59.4 million, and became the most valuable painting ever sold at an auction in Europe. Surrealism was not a style of painting but rather a state of mind that favoured freedom of expression. Following a period of restriction and regimentation, it is this kind of spontaneity that we crave.

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